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American Special Trains: Imagining The Possibilities

This is another in our series of expert blogs. John Andrew Fostik is the Principal of Battery Hill Consulting and the author of America’s Postwar Luxury Liners and Amtrak Across America.

The history of American passenger railroading has been filled with a lot of ideas and, yes, even failed attempts. Consider the futuristic Aerotrain, Talgo, and Train X, or conventional trains like the Golden Rocket, Atlantic City Express, American European Express, Louisville Auto Train and The Aces.  Ultimately they were unsuccessful and disappointments at best or in the case of the former stillborn at worst. The old adage that “timing is everything” might have a ring of truth to some of the efforts coupled with the twin challenges of finance and politics. Believing that one should not continue to hit one’s head against the wall, advocates of enhanced American intercity rail have come to accept failure, lethargy and infighting as the norm. A certain fatigue has set in, the case of the inability to resurrect a full route Sunset Limited, the Pioneer and the Montrealer comes to mind. Further insidious examples include two attempts to bring high-speed rail to Florida, and the actions of governors in Ohio and Wisconsin to cancel extant plans for the reestablishment of conventional passenger train service. 

On the other side of the coin, despite long gestation periods, the classic success of the Downeaster shows what perseverance, good planning and building a grass-roots coalition can achieve. It also didn’t hurt to have well placed allies in the state and federal government. We can also celebrate local successes like the Cape Flyer and the extension of the Cannonball to New York’s Penn Station.  Let’s also keep in mind the progress by states with Virginia’s recent extension of Northeast Regional service to Norfolk and in the not too distant past North Carolina’s addition of another Piedmont. So the present state of passenger rail in America is to this writer a situation of whether the glass is half full or half empty.

We see the continued efforts of All Aboard Florida as a fine example of the former while for Express West it could very well be the latter.  Amtrak, chronically deficient with financing and rolling stock, will be for some the classic poster child of the aforementioned analogy. The polemics of federal critics needs no further example than the personage of US Rep. John Mica. Notwithstanding the gentleman from Florida’s support for local Sun Rail creation  at home, his view on Amtrak has not waivered much….save for a grudging recognition of the need for investment in the Northeast Corridor.  Whether it is the price of a hamburger in the Amcafe or the efforts of Amtrak to be the key player in high (er) speed initiatives, his attacks are headline grabbers.  The end of the Amtrak franchise in whole or part is what he is seeking, calling the present system a “Soviet style operation.” Any self-respecting advocate of enhanced intercity passenger rail in the United States would take umbrage at the ludicrous nature of his statement. Actually a number of informed individuals have noted the former Soviet Union’s passenger rail was in fact a very credible way to move millions of passengers across a vast “empire.” However centralized the planning was, and the absolute state control, the bottom line was that it worked.


Harsh rhetoric aside, could there be some middle ground or strategy that would not substantially involve the dismemberment of Amtrak and still improve passenger rail choices for Americans? To use an often cited cliché, is there a “coalition of the willing” in the private sector that might emerge? To that end I have often thought of an initiative that I call American Special Trains as a niche player. It would emulate the open access European operators such as the Czech Leo Express, Italy’s Nuovo Transporto Viaggiatori or the German Hamburg-Koln Express. While those examples are engaged in corridor-like services, a US example might include a blend of that plus moderate length intercity routes. Of the potential corridor initiatives, the Chicago to Indianapolis route via Fort Wayne is one illustration. That of course would be predicated on collaboration with the Hoosier State and finding some funding to support it. Most importantly funding is a critical first step for any private sector or combination of public-private operations of American Special Trains.


The main knitting of American Special Trains would be to fill in some of what I call the “green gaps” on the Amtrak national map. In essence these green lines are the bus services that connect with the red lines of the Amtrak system. Without gutting all of the successful intermodal Thruway bus routes, I think a well thought out business plan might result in the following list of routes where American Special Trains might operate and not be a wholesale threat to Amtrak. On some of their services it could be well to also emulate the French SNCF’s Ouigo, low cost rail concept, but at conventional speed and daytime only operations.

Here’s the list of what I call 10 x 2–10 routes with twice-daily services.

  • Arizona Special: Phoenix-Tucson
  • Carolina Special: Asheville-Wilmington
  • Colorado Special: Denver-Colorado Springs/Pueblo
  • Florida Special: Jacksonville-Tallahassee
  • Georgia Special: Atlanta-Savannah           
  • Gulf Coast Special: Houston-Galveston 
  • Louisiana Special: New Orleans-Baton Rouge
  • Michigan Special: Detroit-East Lansing
  • Texas Special: Dallas/Fort Worth-Midland/Odessa
  • Wisconsin Special: Milwaukee- Madison

Public discourse is not limited to elected officials, so this proposal for American Special Trains is presented with the idea that it sparks discussion. If we don’t think out of the box we’ll always have the taste of cardboard in our mouths if not our psyche.